Believe it or not, the pioneering hip-hop group De La Soul’s music from their first 6 albums have never been available digitally. It’s never been on iTunes and it’s never been on a streaming service, and it looks like it’s not going to be in the future either. The reason? In the early days of hip-hop, the band never bothered to license any of the samples it used (as many as 60 per song), and now it’s become too expensive and time consuming for the business affairs department at Warner Music to bother with.
And that’s become another sore point for the band, since those early albums were on the small indie Tommy Boy Records, which was eventually acquired by Warners in 2002. Since then, a revolving door of executives have been unable to deal with the clearance process of material that goes back to 1989, meaning that neither the band nor the label has received income from anything other than the physical sales.
Out of frustration, the band gave away those first 6 albums for free for one day only on Valentines Day 2014, a move that crashed the hosting service. This action drew the wrath of Warners, but it was difficult for them to get too angry, since they weren’t about to clear the samples and release the albums anyway.
This brings up two points that every artist should be aware of. First is that you always must get clearance for a sample, because the industry is getting more litigious (see the new plagiarism lawsuit against Ed Sheeran), and you will get caught if you don’t obtain a license. You could get away with it in 1989, but we’re a long way from there now. Many attorneys use the strategy of waiting for a song to be a hit before they sue in order to get more money (don’t want to do it too soon), meaning that you could put a lot of time and work into something and not see much for your effort at the end of the day. You want to be able to enjoy a hit and the money that comes with it, and not have to give most of it away because you didn’t clear the sample for a much lower fee.
The second thing is to be sure you know what’s in your contract. If it can be acquired by another entity at a later time, you may be stuck with a team that you don’t believe in, and doesn’t believe in you either. Remember, it’s called the “music business” for a reason.